Redcoats’ legacy often forgotten
Britain sent 18,000 troops to fight in the Land Wars and many stayed as settlers, writes Charlotte Macdonald Soldiers who had served largely as bachelors married into local communities, including across the lines previously divided by war.
Last Saturday, the first official Day of Remembrance — Ra Maumahara — was held to commemorate the New Zealand Land Wars of the 19th century. Ceremonies recalled those who died in the wars and the tragic legacies of the conflicts.
For iwi at the forefront of these events, the significance of the wars and the purpose of remembering is clear. It is their people who fought, and subsequent generations who have mourned the losses that followed. But what is it that New Zealanders as a whole might have remembered on this occasion?
Is this an event that matters to us all? What role might Pakeha have in remembering these events?
Let’s take a closer look at the history of who took part in the New Zealand Land Wars. The majority of those who fought against Ngapuhi in the 1840s, against Taranaki iwi and Waikato’s Kingitanga and their allies in the 1860s, were the 18,000 or so British troops sent to serve in New Zealand by the Secretary of State for War in London.
These were men of regular Army infantry regiments, along with Royal Navy marines. In New Zealand they fought alongside smaller numbers of colonial militia.
Who were these British redcoat soldiers? Where did they come from? What kinds of experience did they bring to New Zealand?
Some had served in the Crimea in 1854-56. Others had been in India at the time of the 1857 rebellion.
Soldiers sent to the Bay of Islands in 1844-45 came from Sydney, where they had served as guards on convict transports. From 1860, when war began in Taranaki and then spread to the Waikato and the Bay of Plenty, soldiers poured into New Plymouth and Auckland. Troops were again dispatched from Sydney and from the Victorian goldfields.
The 70th regiment was one of several to come from India. The men of the 68th sailed from Rangoon to Auckland and almost immediately were fighting at Gate Pa Pukehinahina in early 1864.
By the time of the major campaigns in 1863-64 there were about 12,000 British soldiers in New Zealand. About one in five of these soldiers of empire applied to take their discharge from the Army in New Zealand. Giving up their rifle and uniform they became “soldier settlers”.
In the unequal aftermath that was the “peace”, land confiscated from Maori became land for such settlers — or, as often, for the opportunist speculators with capital to exploit it for profit.
Soldiers who had served largely as bachelors married into local communities, including across the lines previously divided by war. The wars created a legacy in family and personal histories as well as in the “big” histories of politics, colony and empire.
A research project at Victoria University of Wellington has been working to identify this group of imperial soldiers, drawing on records created by the War Office and held in the National Archives in London. A database containing names and some details of about 12,000 men has just been released. It provides searchable public access to the names, regiments and dates of service in New Zealand. It is a first instalment of what will grow to become a larger resource.
The majority of men came from humble backgrounds. Many were born in rural Ireland with few prospects beyond emigration or the recruiting officer. Conditions in the Army for the great majority who served as rank-and-file privates were brutish.
Rations were crude, liquor too plentiful and punishment liberal.
Flogging was commonly imposed as discipline, while it was still a common practice for officers to buy their positions. The database shows us the faces behind the abstract labels of “Crown”, “government” and “empire”.
The wars of the 1860s were bloody and harsh events. This side of our history is not easy. But it is surely high time for New Zealanders to know what happened here, in the places where we live; to recognise Rangiriri as well as Gallipoli. October 28 each year will provide an occasion for our past to be known, understood, and remembered, not just because history tells a story but because it is the story that makes us who we are.
Soldiers of the Light Infantry Company, 65th Regiment (Yorkshire, North Riding), which saw action in Taranaki and the Waikato.